Two dozen people pack into Kyle Isacksen’s living room. They’re there in response to the homesteader’s latest email—a bat signal for the deep green community to come together for a special project. It’s a compost pile for Reno Sculpture Fest that should be “inspiring and easy to build.” Someone suggests a labyrinth. Another thinks a simple pile framed by palettes makes the most sense. Everyone agrees that informational text is a must.
Isacksen and his wife, Katy, started their urban homestead, the Be The Change Project, with their two sons nearly five years ago. Modeled after Gandhi’s philosophy of “radical simplicity,” the family lives off the grid, below the economic poverty bracket, and just south of Hug High School on the east side of Reno—in the middle of the city. The family relies on their half acre plot to grow their own vegetables and raise small livestock for much of their food.
Since moving in, the Isacksens have started something of a movement on their block as several neighbors have followed their lead, letting lawns turn brown, planting food forests in their yards, and participating in a gift economy. It’s a process Isacksen describes as “just a change in habit.”
Over the years, the Isacksens have spearheaded a number of community projects, including an RTC-sponsored mural, a neighborhood tree guild give-away, and a handful of natural building workshops.
Their latest project, Reno Rot Riders, is arguably the most ambitious. It’s a compost collection service powered by Isacksen’s own bike and trailer. Although he’s currently the only rot rider of Reno Rot Riders, the project is named for growth.
“We’d love to have scores of riders eventually, going out every day, gathering up this food waste, bringing it short distances to these com-posts or compost sites where they’re made into compost and enriching the soil,” he said.
Even on his own, Isacksen has made a small dent in diverting restaurant waste from landfills. He makes pick-ups at five downtown locations each week, hauling three bins at a time in his custom-built trailer. Over the last seven months, he estimates that he has clocked almost 500 miles and diverted 15,000 pounds of food from the dump.
The precedent for success with bike-powered compost collection is well documented. Pedal pushers make their rounds all over the country—from one-person operations like Resoil Sacramento to longtime multi-member cooperatives like Pedal People in Amherst, Massachusetts. Compost Pedallers of Austin, Texas, has made such an impact on their region—diverting 500,000 pounds of waste from landfills—that they are currently partnering with the city to develop new waste management policies.On the right footprint
Isacksen is going with a simple design for the sculpture. With the help of a few friends and a neighbor’s driveway for staging, the group builds four bins, each progressively smaller than the next to illustrate different stages of decomposition—from raw material to finished compost. The final bin measures one cubic foot, a 75 percent reduction in size from the original pile. Isacksen seals the wood with linseed oil and lines each bin with chickenwire.
So far, the biggest challenge for Reno Rot Riders is the question of where to deliver compost materials. Although Isacksen speculates that the operation will eventually establish “dozens of compost locations all around the city,” there’s not yet a huge market for the flipside of food waste pickup.
But maybe there should be. Compost makes up for what Nevada soils lack, namely humus. Though most soils contain 5 percent organic matter, Nevada soils only have 1 percent, a number that—when coupled with a lack of moisture and concentration of nutrients at the top of the soil profile—often results in soil that is lost to wind and water erosion.
That’s where home- and city-wide composting can make a difference. Though broad-scale land management practices yield bigger results on the vast swaths of rangelands that cover the state, smaller-scale action in high impact areas is equally important.
Perhaps the most significant impact of compost production in populated areas is climate impact through waste diversion. According to the EPA, food and yard waste account for 24 percent of garbage that ends up in national landfills. In Northern Nevada, 5 million pounds of garbage is hauled to the Lockwood Regional Landfill every day. And once food waste goes to the dump, it is essentially sealed off from oxygen, making an anaerobic environment that leads to methane—a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
That’s a lot to offset. But at least some people are trying. Commercial operations like Full Circle Compost and RT Donovan divert a combined total of 65 million pounds of organic material from landfills each year. That balances out 13 days of waste collection. So it’s a start.
Cody Witt of Full Circle Compost also believes public awareness is growing.
“There’s a lot of people now who are taking food as one of their number one issues—where it comes from, how it’s grown,” said Witt in a recent phone interview. “And if they’re not happy with it, they’re doing it themselves, so compost is growing on a backyard scale too.”Clinging to scraps
A few people gather to work on some finishing details of the sculpture, namely, sanding the wood and painting a signpost that will sit next to the bins. Conversation drifts back and forth between the art project and politics, with politics winning out for most of the work session. Finally, Isacksen changes the subject. “Can we talk about compost or something?”
The politics of compost doesn’t seem like a thing, but it is—especially if you live in a state where all recycling and compost mandates are voluntary. While California has strict recycling regulations currently in place as well as a mandate to recycle 75 percent of all garbage by 2020, Nevada holds back on waste regulation.
Reno’s franchise agreement with Waste Management makes things even trickier as the company holds exclusive hauling rights for waste in the city.
According to Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus, Isacksen’s operation has the OK from the city and Waste Management. Although there is room for positive interpretation, there are still concerns from the composting community that organic waste movers will get priced out by a company that is only acting in its best financial interest.
Already, this has had an impact on local composters. In 2011, Full Circle Compost had “over 10 garbage trucks a week” coming in from Reno. Now 80 percent of its green waste comes from California and Witt is looking to the state to do the right thing.
“It comes down to Nevada,” said Witt. “The number one thing that needs to be changed is the total state regulation of increasing waste diversion.”
Talk of regulation and mandates in a state with a broad libertarian streak is never going to be popular—but it may be the case that the act of building a compost pile in the backyard is the most freedom-loving action anyone can take. Just ask Reno Rot Riders.
In a few days, the compost sculpture will be trucked out to South Virginia St. for Reno Sculpture Fest. It will be on display from May 6-8. After the festival is over, the bins will be converted into rabbit hutches for Isacksen’s homestead.